Current Affairs

The Eventful Path to Association Leadership

13th January 2021

For AC Forum, Nicole Kaijser, Learning & Programme Officer at the European Association for International Education, together with Andreu Gusi, Executive Director of the European Blood Marrow Transplantation (EBMT) Society, reflects on how to build your expertise as an association professional beyond what you were hired for.

In 2012 I found myself living in Amsterdam with my Dutch husband, frantically searching for a job in my native language. Having worked with international students, it was the ‘IE’ of the European Association for International Education (EAIE) that attracted me to the role of Programmes Manager –  little did I know how much the ‘A’ had in store for me! Years later I find myself comparing notes on the ‘must-have’ skills for association professionals with fellow AC Forum Board member, Andreu Gusi, Executive Director of European Blood Marrow Transplantation (EBMT) Society:

Understanding & Advocacy
It is important that we regularly step back and observe the bigger picture. What initially seemed like a role focused on data, content and room pax quickly turned into a deep understanding of the importance in providing a platform for our members to share their voices, knowledge, and feel supported. Ever since then, enabling and innovating this platform has become my focus in order to advance the EAIE’s vision of an equitable world where international education connects diverse perspectives and understanding. 

Andreu explains how the real strength of EBMT is its volunteers. Rather than to professionalise them within the association and risk losing its entire business model and essence, the mandate of the EBMT paid professionals to develop the framework whereby their volunteers become the principal actors in saving the lives of patients with blood cancers and other life-threatening diseases. 

Vision and Leadership
With so many gifted volunteers comes a wealth of ideas. Ten years ago at EBMT, volunteers took executive roles; managing staff and the organisation. Andreu quickly recognised that all managerial decisions needed to be delegated to the paid professionals, and in order to achieve this the leadership needed to stay within the board – a difficult but important structure to implement for the future of the association. 

It is up to us as paid professionals to delicately organise responsibilities while acknowledging where the expertise comes from. Within this process, it’s key to obtain alignment and trust between the President and the Executive Director. Of course, there can always a certain tension but in our experiences this has always been a healthy partnership.

Guidance and Empathy
Finally, learning how to balance pushing for the best results verses pushing your volunteers away is one of the greatest attributes any association professional can possess. It can be challenging to implement new ideas knowing that volunteers might not be able to juggle their time to fulfil all commitments. 

The only way to truly understand the role of a volunteer is to become one. Volunteering for AC Forum has been the best mirror for us to reflect on life as a volunteer verses that of a paid professional. As a technology glitch recently ‘outed’ us for reading Board documents shortly before the meeting, our empathy for the hard-working association volunteer grows ever more by the day.

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